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Ages Ahead: Promoting Inter-Generational Relationships

Edited by Sik Hung Ng, Ann Weatherall, James H. Liu, and Cynthia S.F. Loong, Victoria University Press, 1998.

Juliet Elworthy
Social Policy Agency

Ages Ahead brings together papers from the conference "Rediscovering the Elderly: Choices and Opportunities for Older and Younger Generations in an Ageing World", held in December 1996 by the Department of Psychology and the Health Services Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington. The Foreword to the book by Dr Margaret Guthrie says that the conference had two related goals: the first, "to disseminate recent research findings on issues of ageist stereotypes and the needs and welfare of older people, especially issues around inter-generational relationships"; and the second, "to promote discussion about and to explore the nature of understanding and communication between younger and older generations with the aim of enhancing social cohesion."

The "recent research" is covered in the papers "Ageing as a Resource" by Raymond Pong, Research Director of the Centre for Rural and Northern Health Research and Professor at Laurentian University, Ontario; "Inter-generational Relationships in the Chinese Community" by Sik Hung Ng, James H. Liu, Ann Weatherall and Cynthia S.F. Loong, all from the School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington; and "Inter-generational Communication and Respect for Older People Around the Pacific Rim" by Cynthia Gallois, Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Pong's paper examines the transformation of Elliott Lake in Ontario from mining town to retirement community. The Retirement Living Progamme which "saved the town" and altered its demographics, is used to explore relationships between the generations, and ways of avoiding conflict between them. The research by Ng et al. reports on a study of middle-aged parents' and children's stereotypes of communication with and obligations to older people, as the first phase of research on the ethnic Chinese community in Wellington. The paper by Gallois gives an overview of the research project being carried out from the University of California at Santa Barbara, the overall purpose of which she describes as "to explore the complex and multifaceted relationship between culture and inter-generational communication in a growing number of countries around the Pacific Rim." Essentially this reports on a questionnaire survey of young people in East Asia and Pacific nations (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines) and in Western nations (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), of their impressions and beliefs about older people and communication with them.

The other material in the book comprises, in addition to the introduction by Sik Hung Ng and George Salmond, two commentaries on each of the research papers; two papers in each of the chapters "Maori Perspectives", "European/Pākehā Perspectives" and "Chinese Perspectives"; and the summary paper "Reflections and Prospects" by Te Ripowai Higgins. The six "Perspectives" papers set out the writer's own life experience in terms of relationships between the generations.

While Dr Guthrie's Foreword refers to explorations of stereotypes, the needs and welfare of older people, and understanding and communication between younger and older generations, the papers are in fact heavily weighted to issues of communication. Stereotypes and associated attitudes are also covered, but there is little reference to the "needs and welfare" of older persons. This is possibly due to the book's orientation to relationships in the context of the "well elderly". As the Introduction notes, the model of research informing most of the mainstream publications on ageing is one which is primarily based on negative ageing. The topic of "needs and welfare" tend to be associated more with negative ageing, which this book's focus on positive ageing is attempting to balance. However, defining the relationship between "well" generations in terms of communication and attitudes leaves out the issue of the provision of support, material and otherwise, which helps define the relationships. In a time when older people view with apprehension the possibility of reductions to Government-provided support to them, this aspect of inter-generational relationships has growing importance for the well-being of older people living within the community.

However, the perspective of "positive ageing" which informs these papers is refreshing, as is the inclusion in a New Zealand publication of detail on Chinese and, more generally, Asian experience of inter-generational relationships. The papers by Ng et al. and Gallois also cover unusual ground in subjecting stereotypes of " Asian respect for elders", often advanced as a model for Western attitudes to older people, to empirical scrutiny.

Overall, though, the book has an uneven quality. This seems to be due to the imbalance in the number of research papers (three) to the number of Commentaries and the Perspectives papers (12), and to the imbalance in the content of these two groupings of papers. Whereas the research papers provide a wealth of objective detail, the chapters on Perspectives and much of the Commentary sections are largely anecdotal. Most of the Perspective papers, while interesting in themselves, constitute little more than life stories and personal speculations. All these papers have implicit within them themes capable of a wider application, which could have been drawn out to contribute to a more in-depth discussion of relationships between the generations. However, these are rarely made explicit or built on in this way. The solutions which the writers do put forward are couched very much in terms of personal behaviour: become better at communicating; get our values right; get family structures right. Most, although not all, of the Commentary papers on each of the research papers also tend to be anecdotal, offering (again) personally based directions for change, rather than discussions of the findings or of the policy directions implied by these.

The research papers by Pong, Ng et al. and Gallois provide hard data on inter-generational attitudes and relationships. They also provide some linkage of their findings with directions for policy. Pong's case study of Elliott Lake is based on the premise that conflicts between generations exist, and that they are mostly competitions for scarce resources, even if expressed as conflicts over values or lifestyles. The acceptance of the influx of retirees to Elliott Lake was largely due to a general perception that the retirees were contributing significantly to the community. Pong's conclusion is that when older people become a resource to society, they create opportunities for younger generations and contribute to the strengthening of interdependence and mutuality between the generations. This conclusion does of course put emphasis on older persons "choosing" to contribute. It would have been useful to have had some analysis of the extent to which the ability to contribute is a matter of choice, and of barriers which might exist to deter such contributions. In her commentary on this paper, Maree Brown picks up on the strong sense of responsibility for younger generations shown by older people in their representations to the Prime Ministerial Task Force on Positive Ageing. Thus, the motivation to contribute to the welfare of younger people seems already to be present in a significant number of older people; what are the factors which determine whether this is translated into action?

The conclusions drawn in the paper by Ng et al. point up the complexity of images which younger people have of older people, and also an association between cultural identity and filial piety: the stronger the sense of identity, whether as a Chinese or a New Zealander, the greater the support for filial piety. The authors extract from this a positive message for Chinese parents of New Zealand-born children, that filial piety can exist with acculturation. Essentially though the paper is concerned with pointing up directions for research rather than policy, in particular for research into the impact of acculturation on inter-generational relationships within other communities in New Zealand. In her commentary on this paper, Natalie Lavery makes the useful point that the research's focus on verbal communication, and on patterns of initiation of communication, leaves out the important factors of quality of communication, and the power and importance of the speaker. I feel that the paper could have benefited also from some gender analysis. As expectations still hold that much of the "caring work" in families is the responsibility of women within the family, it would be interesting to see patterns of responsibility between genders for communication with different generations.

The research on which the paper by Gallois reports similarly shows the complexity of generational stereotypes, and also the cross-cultural presence of problems in inter- generational communication. Like the Ng research, this research examined beliefs about "filial piety", and a key finding was that, while English-speaking young people said that they would engage in more filial piety than expected of them, young people from Asia and the Pacific thought that expectations of them were higher than they would give. While noting that this finding challenges commonly held stereotypes, Gallois is careful to present it in its proper context. In particular, she notes that the anonymous questionnaire format of the research may have provided an opportunity for Asian young people to express negative beliefs, while still maintaining traditional behaviour. Gallois points to directions for research, concluding that, "To understand inter-generational communication, we must examine the perceptions and behaviour of older and middle-aged adults, as well as young people, and we must examine their social identity as well as their personal identity".

The summary paper "Reflections and Prospects" from Te Ropowai Higgins, Senior Lecturer at Te Kawa a Maui/School of Maori Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, also does not bring out policy directions. This paper provides a good overview of the papers, and some interesting commentary, but tends to be mainly descriptive. While most of the papers did not explicitly highlight policy issues, sufficient implicit points were present which could have been used to give direction in this summing-up for future policy (and research) work. It would have been useful to supplement this publication by the addition of a chapter providing this direction. The Introduction attempts this in a general way by highlighting "some of the emergent themes" - generational conflict and cooperation, generational segregation and mutuality, stereotypes and attitudes towards older people, and obligations towards older people - and providing an overview of issues raised in relation to these themes at the conference.

In its concluding sentences, the Introduction states, "The very conference that gave birth to this book was a positive experience - participants came out of it feeling positive about the ageing world and realistically optimistic about individual ageing. This, in a nutshell, is also the take-home message of this book." The papers do collectively convey much goodwill between the generations, and commitment to enabling older people to take positive and active roles in society. It would have been useful, though, if the book had been able to look further than personal experience and solutions, to provide some policy guidelines which would help give some optimistic direction to "collective ageing".

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Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 11

Ages Ahead: Promoting Inter-Generational Relationships

Dec 1998

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